What is EMDR? Does it Work?
I recently came across a podcast titled "We Answer the Question: Is EMDR a Pyramid Scheme?" by Therapy Reimagined (linked below). Once I listened to the podcast itself, they actually go on to say that EMDR has been proven effective for acute trauma. They do discuss, however, that if a therapist is administering the protocol incorrectly, or is just a generally sub par therapist as far relational and clinical skills, EMDR treatment can be harmful.
At this point I'm noting that I got sucked into a click-bait title, but more importantly, the bottom line was the same as any critique on therapy. The therapeutic relationship is the single most important factor in therapy that determines how effective or helpful the therapy really is. In other words, if you don't like or trust your therapist, its difficult to be fully vulnerable and receptive to interventions. This is a well-known fact.
So, what about EMDR? What is it and does it actually work??
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a therapeutic approach that is used to treat symptoms related to trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It has also been used in the treatment of other conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and phobias. EMDR therapy involves the use of eye movements, tapping, or sounds to stimulate the brain's natural ability to process and heal traumatic memories.
During an EMDR session clients are guided through a series of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation techniques while recalling distressing memories. The idea is to help the brain reprocess the traumatic memory in a more adaptive way, allowing the client to develop new insights and perspectives about the event and reduce the intensity of the emotional response when triggered.
EMDR therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, phobias, and addiction. There have been several studies conducted to examine the effectiveness of EMDR, and here are some key findings:
Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR in treating PTSD. For example, a 2013 meta-analysis of 26 randomized controlled trials found that EMDR was more effective than control conditions and equally effective as other trauma-focused therapies.
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Bisson, J. I., Roberts, N. P., Andrew, M., Cooper, R., & Lewis, C. (2013). Psychological therapies for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2013(12).
Lee, C. W., & Cuijpers, P. (2013). A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44(2), 231-239.
A 2016 review of 20 studies found that EMDR was effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Acarturk, C., Konuk, E., Cetinkaya, M., Senay, I., Sijbrandij, M., Cuijpers, P., & Aker, T. (2015). EMDR for Syrian refugees with posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 6(1).
Davidson, P. R., & Parker, K. C. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69(2), 305-316
Acarturk, C., Konuk, E., Cetinkaya, M., Senay, I., Sijbrandij, M., Cuijpers, P., & Aker, T. (2015). EMDR for Syrian refugees with posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 6(1). Davidson, P. R., & Parker, K. C. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69(2), 305-316.
Several studies have found that EMDR can be effective in reducing symptoms of depression, particularly when used in combination with other therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Pagani, M., Di Lorenzo, G., Verardo, A. R., & Nicolais, G. (2012). EMDR in the treatment of chronic phantom limb pain. Pain Medicine, 13(10), 1311-1316.
Hofmann, A., & Barlow, D. (2014). Evidence-based psychological interventions and the common factors approach: The beginnings of a rapprochement? Psychotherapy, 51(4), 510-513.
What EMDR is NOT:
For people who do not have basic coping skills
Although EMDR has also been studied as a treatment for a range of other mental health conditions, including phobias, addiction, and eating disorders with varying levels of success, it is NOT a cure-all treatment. Often times issues like addiction and eating disorders are actually rooted in trauma, and the abuse of substances/food/body is the maladaptive coping mechanism that develops in response. EMDR reprocesses trauma and changes the way the body reacts to triggers. Thus, if you heal the "root" of the wound and work with the client around lifestyle changes, you can see how these conditions can improve and clients can move into a space of recovery.
It would not be appropriate to us EMDR for certain diagnoses, such as schizophrenia or ADHD, which are more likely to have biomedical causes. Additionally, EMDR is an intense treatment and should not be used on clients who are fundamentally unstable or lack basic coping skills. This is of course up to each therapists' discretion on a case-by-case basis.
My Experience with EMDR as a Therapist
I have received EMDR treatment and I can truly say it has had a positive effect on me. As a therapist, of course I'm pretty insightful into my own trauma, and have done a lot of therapy myself. EMDR has helped my body calm down around triggers. My nervous system has been able to overcome my fight-flight-freeze response, allowing my logical thinking part of my brain to be more in control. I can now communicate my triggers to others in the moment, ask for what I need, pause, and use healthy coping skills. Before I would just completely shut down or get angry or rude in response to by body's trauma response. This of course would perpetuate the trauma cycle and I'm not going into that... that is a topic for another post!
Receiving my training, certification, and administering EMDR in sessions with my clients has been one of the most impactful things I've done in my therapy career. Despite how many modalities and interventions currently exist, sometimes talk therapy just doesn't cut it. The body's dysregulated survival response needs to be acknowledged and treated. Your spinal cord and brain need to know that you are OK to heal.
Each individual's response to EMDR is different, just as our responses to trauma are different. It is not a magical cure-all, and it can still have life-changing effects. I invite you to meet with me for a free 15 minute consultation to determine if EMDR therapy is appropriate for you.